Travel California's 800 miles end to end, and you'll find every terrain imaginable: snow-capped mountains, Alpine meadows, rolling vineyards, drippy Redwood forests, vast farmlands, and arid desert. A road trip from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks to Death Valley National Park is a study in California's natural diversity.
At Sequoia & Kings Canyon, you'll see the Sierra Nevada's high granite mountains and giant Sequoia groves. Visiting Death Valley, a below-sea-level basin, you'll see towering peaks, jagged rock salt plains, multicolored volcanic hills, and sand dunes.
Here's where and how to make the most of your California road trip.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Sequoia & Kings Canyon sit side by side and encompass 1,353 square miles. President Benjamin Harrison established Sequoia National Park in 1890 to protect the giant sequoia trees from logging. Kings Canyon National Park came along in 1940 thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
You'll definitely want to visit the park's giant sequoia groves, which rise to more than 300 feet. At Giant Forest, you'll find the General Sherman Tree, the largest living sequoia. Then visit Grant Grove to spot more sequoias that reach up to 20 feet in diameter, but the star here is the General Grant Tree, which is recognized as the nation's Christmas tree. To get away from the crowds, take the 2-mile hike from Generals Highway to Muir Grove.
For a moderate day hike, trek the 4.2 miles to Upper and Lower Monarch Lakes. You'll catch spectacular views as you pass through meadows and a red fir forest. The trail is located in the Mineral King Valley area, which starts at 7,500 feet elevation. Take your time and drink plenty of water.
Extend your day at Giant Forest with a hike on either the Middle Fork or Marble Falls trails, both of which will take you to peaceful waterfalls. Other popular hiking spots include Cedar Grove and the classic, yet difficult, John Muir Trail.
Best Time to Visit
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks stay open year-round, although some roads and hiking areas may close for the winter season. Be sure to check the park’s website before your trip to stay in the know.
The foothills in the park do have mild winter temperatures for hiking. Some sections of the park offer cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
In the spring, you'll see wildflowers in the foothills, snow atop the sequoias, and gushing rivers and waterfalls. The weather is unpredictable with occasional snow showers so pack a variety of layers and come prepared for anything.
Summer brings the largest crowds and comfortable temperatures in most areas of the park. It can get up to the 90s Fahrenheit in the foothills though, so bring lots of water to stay hydrated.
Fall welcomes chilly evenings and warm to moderate days; it's difficult to predict which you'll get, but the crowds are sparse and the autumn views are spectacular.
Death Valley National Park
The largest national park outside of Alaska, Death Valley encompasses 3.3 million mysterious acres. Visiting Death Valley can take you from Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, to Telescope Peak, which climbs to 11,049 feet.
"The landscape in Death Valley is so incredibly remote and desolate," says Krista Canfield McNish, founder of the travel blog FoodWaterShoes. "Throughout the park you'll see deserted old mines and camps. I came away from our experience respecting the Native Americans and pioneers who made their way through this tough terrain."
Hiking is plentiful in Death Valley, but you won't find many marked trails. Here, you'll trek cross-country, either along flatlands, slopes, or mountains, using the footprints of those that walked before you as your guide. With that in mind, Canfield McNish advises that you take extra precautions or hire a guide to ensure you arrive at your destination without getting lost.
Places to See
Death Valley offers dozens of opportunities to see one-of-a-kind landscapes and formations.
You would have one tough game on Devil's Golf Course, a massive salt rock area near Badwater Basin that's eroded into jagged spires as far as the eye can see. Keep an eye out for the salt pool.
Have you ever seen a rock move on its own? You might at Racetrack Playa, located 2 miles south of the Grandstand parking area. Called "sailing stones," the rocks on this desert move and shift for no logical reason. National Parks Service says no one has actually seen the rocks move, but they do leave behind evidence.
"The smallest hints of ice combined with light breaths of wind move what would otherwise stand still," says Canfield McNish. “It's a powerful metaphor only nature can illustrate."
For the most remarkable sunrise and sunset views, visit Zabriskie Point. You'll see multiple shades of gold in the Golden Canyon cliffs. Take the short paved trail to the lookout, or extend your day and hike Golden Canyon through its multicolored walls.
Other don't-miss Death Valley sites include the volcanic hills of Artist's Drive, Twenty Mule Team Canyon through the badlands, the marbled Mosaic Canyon, and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Best Time to Visit
Unless you enjoy 120-degree heat, visit Death Valley in the winter or spring. From February through May, you'll spot desert gold, bear poppy, desert dandelions, and other wildflowers throughout the park. The flowers usually bloom earliest in lower elevations and gradually make their way into higher elevations. Average temperatures range from the low 70s in February to up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in May in lower elevations. Lows range from the mid 40s to the low 70s. However, no matter the time of year you visit, you’re sure to be stunned by the variety of nature’s landscapes encompassed in this California gem.
What are your favorite hiking spots in the Sierras and Death Valley? Share your travel pics with us on Instagram.